Meet our 2014 Education Pioneers: Rebecca Velasco

September 17, 2014

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Since 2005, the California Charter Schools Association has welcomed graduate students each summer from the Education Pioneers Fellowship program to provide their expertise and perspective to some of the pressing challenges that charter schools face. The mission of Education Pioneers is to identify, train, connect, and inspire a new generation of leaders dedicated to transforming the educational system so that all students receive a quality education.

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Rebecca Velasco is an Education Pioneers fellow who worked with CCSA's School Development and Support team this summer on a project to refine and expand the team's existing evaluation system. She is a native of Los Angeles, currently pursuing a Master's in Public Policy from the USC Price School of Public Policy. She graduated with a B.A. in American Studies from Stanford University in 2008, and since then has dedicated her career to improving educational outcomes for students in urban, high-poverty school districts. Before beginning graduate school, Rebecca worked at Spark, a non-profit that matches disadvantaged middle-school students with apprenticeships at local workplaces, and lead the launch of Spark's programming into Oakland Unified School District.

Describe the project you worked on this summer.

This summer, I've been working closely with the School Development and Support (SD&S) team to design a Team Impact evaluation framework that will measure CCSA's impact (or "value-add") on developer teams and also provide several summative measures to examine CCSA's impact towards developing and expanding the number of high-quality charter schools serving students across the state. The new program evaluation framework will include a number of methods with which to capture hard data and qualitative feedback, including three surveys for developers, school development benchmarks, a skills/capacity rubric to score teams at intake, and a supports rubric to rank the level of support developers received from SD&S.

The evaluation will examine the efficacy of the supports CCSA provides to developer members, including the level of influence the organization has on new schools in the development process as well as on student and school performance once those schools become operational. To correlate a school's experience as a developer with their student and school outcomes down the line, the evaluation also incorporates a regression model in hopes to isolate the impact that developer membership has on school quality.

What are you interested in doing in the future or after graduate school?

I've been interested in education and supported the work of public schools in various capacities for as long as I can remember, and I have no intention of letting up now! Having grown up in the Los Angeles area, I'm committed to influencing public education in the region, and working to ensure equitable outcomes for all students across the city. In terms of what role I'll play, that's still open for debate; but I am increasingly interested in data and accountability, program evaluation, policy analysis and research, and the role philanthropy plays in shaping the sector.

What drew you to the Education Pioneer Program?

I have many friends and former co-workers who have completed the Education Pioneer Program in different cities across the United States, and after hearing the enthusiasm with which one particular co-worker described the program, I was immediately convinced that this program was the right way to help me dive deeper into the education sector in Los Angeles and build a strong network of professionals passionate about shaping the future of public education. Since 2010 when I first heard about the Education Pioneer Program, I knew I was going to do it; it was just a matter of applying and being accepted, which, thankfully, I was!

What has been the most surprising thing you've learned in the course of your work this summer?

I've learned so much about the variability of charter schools nationally, and even within the state. The most surprising thing has probably been the degree to which different opinions can be formed about the charter school movement based on the same data. So as a student of policy, I definitely try to interrogate the studies and reports I read. It's also been really eye-opening to learn more about the school development process - the sheer amount of work, passion, sacrifice, and dedication that is required of teams that want to open a charter school. It makes you want to laugh out loud when critics say that charter leaders are in it for the money.

What was your familiarity with charter schools before working at CCSA? How has your view of charter schools changed?

My familiarity with charter schools has been informed by a number of things - research on the KIPP model during my undergraduate, working for an educational support organization that partnered with a charter school, an insane amount of articles and books about charters that I've read for classes and in my free time, and my mom's view of charters as an Los Angeles Union School District teacher. Despite hearing and valuing arguments on both sides of the charter debate, I was in support of charter schools before working at CCSA and I remain supportive of the good work that so many charters are doing nationwide.

I'm not interested in validating education politics so much as working towards finding strategies and reforms that work for kids. If a charter school works in a certain neighborhood, that's awesome. If it doesn't, then let's find ways to make sure that neighborhood gets what it needs. Looking back on my career in 50 years, I'd love to be able to say that my work in education couldn't be bucketed in one realm or the other - but was actualized in roles and in organizations that were meaningful and were working towards driving improvements in public education broadly.

What changes would you like to see in our public education system?

There are too many things to name, but one that's been on my mind lately is how the future of education will really depend on whether or not we can recover from this idea that data and accountability is scary and destructive, and especially bad for teachers. I know from having grown up around teachers that many are not supportive of the new teacher evaluation system, not because they don't believe in developing professionally, but because there's this huge fear of data and what it could mean for job security. As a student of policy, I've grown to really love data and I think when it can be brought to life, and schools can see how to put their data into action and use it to spur improvements, then it becomes this very powerful thing. Although I don't want to see data completely eclipse other ways of defining success, I do want to see all stakeholders in the public school system embrace data more because I believe it can create a shared language and illuminate a clear direction forward.